Elite Colleges Perpetuating Educational Segregation and Income Inequality

ACORN Citizen Wealth Community Organizing Education Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

Old_Main,_Vassar_College_edit1Houston           All of the evidence on income stratification in higher education indicates that elite colleges and universities continue to play a major role in accelerating inequality as cherished ghettos of the rich and guardians of society’s inside track.  It should come as no surprise that they are undoubtedly the least able to heal themselves and open their doors to lower income students and play a role in decreasing inequality.

            The scores are now in and they have failed on every count, if they were ever even trying to do the right thing, in recruiting lower income students.

In 2006, at the 82 schools rated “most competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, 14 percent of American undergraduates came from the poorer half of the nation’s families, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University who analyzed data from federal surveys. That was unchanged from 1982.  And at a narrower, more elite group of 28 private colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League members, researchers at Vassar and Williams Colleges found that from 2001 to 2009, a period of major increases in financial aid at those schools, enrollment of students from the bottom 40 percent of family incomes increased from just 10 to 11 percent. 

Oh, and let’s be perfectly clear, this failure is not because there aren’t more than enough fully qualified potential applicants.   In “… fact… there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.”  Reading this piece in the New York Times, was mainly an exercise in allowing many of the experts and college presidents a chance to make excuses and rationalizations for the failure.  Basically, they claim the the dog ate their homework. 

The biggest dog was the barking dollar which had all of them by the collar.  They are elite and high status partially because they have a financial structure that advertises exactly that kind of exclusivity with a price tag to match.  They whined that the financial formula was such that to provide the amount of financial subsidy to genuinely recruit more lower income students they would need roughly one million dollars in endowment for every $45 or $50,000 worth of subsidy.  This kind of vicious financial circle was going to bite someone’s butt, and it wasn’t going to be theirs was the bottom line of their message, so to heck with the poor.

I’ve jumped on this soapbox before and argued that to make real change requires outreach.  I’ve even recommended that these colleges connect with community organizations, like ACORN working in these communities, to act as feeders of talent and support to populate their student bodies.  Probably sounds a little bit like allowing class struggle and a mini-revolution to come in the front door past the ivy covered gates, but darned if the President of Vassar didn’t shame her colleagues by calling them out:

“You can make big statements about being accessible, and have need-blind admissions and really low net prices for low-income kids, but still enroll very few of those low-income kids, by doing minimal outreach,” said Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College. “There has to be a commitment to go out and find them.”

Talk is cheaper than actually doing the work, enrolling lower income students, and paying the bills in the fight against inequality, so unless there’s a lot more of action of the type that Hill is calling for, another 30 years will go by without much change except that these same schools will be even more stratified as playgrounds and proving grounds for the rich, high born and insider trackers of America.